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Maine is about to open party primaries to hundreds of thousands more voters

This story was originally published in the Bangor Daily News.

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 350,000 Maine voters could vote in primaries starting in a key 2024 election after lawmakers approved a bill to allow for semi-open primaries for presidential, congressional and legislative elections.

Both chambers of the Legislature voted to advance the bill on Monday after the budget panel agreed to fund it last week. It now heads to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk.

The bill, which won initial approval last year but lingered without funding, will not affect competitive primaries this year. It would open future ones starting in two years to roughly one-third of Maine voters who now have to register with a party to vote in primaries.

Roughly 1 in 3 registered Maine voters are not enrolled in a party, comprising the second-largest chunk of voters in the state, according to data from Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office. As of last November, there were roughly 361,000 active voters registered without a party affiliation, compared with 399,000 Democrats and 316,000 Republicans.

The bill would allow unenrolled voters to vote in party primaries without formally enrolling as a Republican or Democrat. Under current law, unenrolled voters can vote in primaries by enrolling on Election Day, but cannot switch back to being an unenrolled voter if they desire for at least three months.

More than two dozen states have some form of open or semi-open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under the Maine bill, unenrolled voters will be allowed to vote in one party primary each election cycle. The party ballot requested by a voter will be a public record.

The legislation aims to safeguard against voters unenrolling from a major party in order to vote in a different party’s primary. Similar to current law, which does not allow voters who switch party registration within 15 days of a primary to vote in that election, the bill limits primary voting by voters who recently unenrolled.

It received bipartisan backing in the Legislature, with Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, as its lead sponsor and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, among the cosponsors. It was also supported by groups including the League of Women Voters of Maine.